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Faculty Profile: Michael Johnson, Upper School Social Studies Teacher

November 06, 2020

Tell us about your path to Léman.

I earned a B.A. in History and a Master’s in Social Studies Education at the State University at Albany. While I was studying there, I worked in schools as an aide. One of those schools was a school for kids with neurobiological disorders.

After I graduated and I worked at a transfer school in Queens, which is a school for kids who have dropped out and then re-enrolled in high school. There, they can earn their high school degree as well as get support with job placement. From there, I moved to a charter school in Harlem for a couple of years, and then I came to Léman, where I’ve been for the past ten years.


What do you like about teaching at the 7th-9th grade level? 

I have taught kids at every age from 10 to 20, but my favorite grade to teach is 8th. It's not what I thought I would like the most when I started out, but I've found that I have the ability to connect with kids at this age really well. They start to see the things that they haven’t before and, as a teacher, I can set the foundation for what they are building on going forward. There is something about getting them right now at this moment when they are ready to make the leap into something bigger that I really enjoy.


What do you hope that your kids take away from your class into 10th grade and beyond? 

Most importantly, I'm trying to create empathetic, good citizens of the world who understand that the lessons of history and social science are things that should not just guide their coursework class and the standards that we pursue. They should be making clear connections between things that happened in the past and things that are occurring now and what type of person they want to be through those history lessons. 

I think that there is a lot there to ground them in terms of their learning goals and skills. I try to make history as interesting as possible. What that allows me to do is hook them with these interesting things and then build critical foundational skills that they can take across all disciplines so they can learn how to do research and learn how to write really well. I've created a lot of scaffolds for writing and reading that are used across Léman. For example, “why is it important to incorporate evidence into my writing? Why do I need to back up what I'm saying with other facts?” I’m teaching them that this is a discipline, that there's not always one right answer. Most of the time there are many different right answers, and it's about your ability to justify those. I'm teaching a lot of those foundational skills at this time before they start to make the jump into IB and then college. Beyond that, I think it is important to give them the roots and bones that they can hang the rest of their education on.


What do you like about teaching at an IB school and at Léman, in particular? 

I was the department chair, and I was piloting standards-based grading when we first became an IB school. It impacted all the decisions that I made in the department and in my own teaching thereafter in terms of doing backward design.

There is a natural correlation between being globally-minded and creating empathetic, good citizens. We have such a diverse student body and diverse school that all those things coalesce around the curriculum well. It was easy for me in that way because a lot of what the IB goals are, we already backward designed into the curriculum right from its earliest stages.

I've loved the freedom that I’ve had at Léman to pursue projects and grow as an educator in really authentic ways and design a really authentic curriculum. I would not have been able to do that anywhere else. I lucked out with this community.

I've had amazing relationships with people here. It feels like a family. And that's important to me because my son is in PreK 4 here.

Over the years I've held many roles at the school including being the department chair, an academic coach, the SAT coordinator, the faculty advisor for the newspaper, and the chess club sponsor. I organizing the seventh and eighth-grade trip to D.C. for several years and I was the eighth-grade commencement speaker four times. Now that my son is here it's nice because I feel I had a hand in the design of a lot of these programs and the school allowed me to have a lot of ownership in those projects. I feel like I helped to build some of these things for my son, which is nice.


You are one of the original faculty sponsors of The Bullhorn, Léman’s student newspaper. How did that project get started? 

When the LCA was calling for grant proposals, they reached out to faculty to see if anyone was interested in starting a newspaper and I thought that it was really important to instill a value in the school of what the role of news should be. I took them up on the offer of starting the paper and I reached out to Aubrey Sherman, the Upper School English teacher, who knows the nuts and bolts of journalism. We partnered together to bring the newspaper to school, and it's been going for three years and it gets better every year. We were even able to put out an issue last year during the quarantine when we were all home. We asked the students if they wanted to put out an issue last spring and they were fired up about putting out a paper during that time. We were able to put out one of our best editions in terms of like content and design. It was a proud moment for the paper. 

I've learned a lot. It's hard to put out a paper and we've been committed to making sure that it was in print because I think there's something really tangible about having a paper in your hand, feeling it, being able to engage with it in that way, that makes it more real and it gives the kids a little bit more ownership over it. They can pick up and have a copy. It's something they can hold on to it forever.


What is your educational philosophy?

I want to help create civically-minded, empathetic young people who have a strong foundation in understanding how the past shapes the future and also giving kids the skills that they need to be successful in high school and college and beyond, so that even if you're not necessarily interested in being a student of history, regardless of what your interests are, you're going to take some important things out of the course in terms of what you learn about how to how to write, how to critically think, how to read for purpose, how to practice evidence-based writing. These are things that will help you regardless of what sort of path you choose to go on. 


What do you like to do in your free time?

Most of my free time is spent with family. I spend a lot of time with my son and we try to take advantage of all the things that the city has to offer. We go to a lot of museums and sporting events. We have seen a lot of the parks now. We go to the zoo a lot. My students know I'm a really big Yankees fan, a really big sports fan in general.  When we are not talking about history, we are often talking sports in my classroom. I like to travel. I don’t get to travel as much as I would like, but I would like to do more traveling. Once this is all over, I want to take my son to Disneyland. 


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